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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Reference This

Is there any one reference book you keep close at hand at all times? Mine is a dictionary--an old dictionary--and I keep it on my computer desk, within easy reach. Every dictionary I own is at least 40 or 50 years old, and those old books have been the source of some grousing within my family. We used to play Scrabble every Christmas when my brothers and sister were here and they always complained about my outdated Webster's and told me to get a new one. Well, not on your life. I love my old dictionaries and wouldn't part with them. Every year, I explained that I write historicals and have no use for a newer version, which earned me an eye roll from my sister. A week or so ago, hubby and I were at the indoor flea market and I spotted a dictionary that was much older than any of mine. The thing was at least 6 inches thick and I know my eyes lit up when I saw it. I hoped hubby might take a hint and get it for me for Mother's Day, but I guess that's too much to wish for. Subtle hints usually go right past him unnoticed.

Although... he did surprise me years ago with an antique copy of "The Cottage Physician." The print date in the front of it is 1895. All the pages are loose from the binding and I have to be careful when I take it down and look through it but, by some miracle, the pages are all still there. It's a wonderful resource for how ailments and injuries were treated back in the late 1800's and even has drawings of the medicinal plants that were used.

Like most writers, I have a large, very eclectic collection of reference and how-to books on my shelves. Everything from Medieval Arms and Armour, costume books, the Everyday Life books covering most time periods, to folklore of the British Isles during the Dark Ages, to the entire collection of Time-Life's Old West Series, and many, many things in between. I have several of the Writer's Digest writer's references, including Body Trauma and Armed and Dangerous, but the one I don't have and always meant to get was a reference on poisons and deadly potions. And that reminds me of something that happened years ago.

I was working on a western about feuding ranchers and came to the part where a watering hole is poisoned. I had no idea what they might have used to taint the water and turn it deadly, so I called my uncle, who's a farmer and he also owns a large number of cattle. I put the question to him this way--"If you were going to poison your neighbor's pond, what would you use?" Bear in mind that this was during the days when hardly anyone outside of my household knew I wrote. There was a very long stretch of silence at the other end of the line. Finally, he spoke up and asked, "Why do you want to know that?" I explained that I was working on a story. but he remained skeptical. I never did get an answer out of him. And later, I heard from another relative that my uncle had mentioned my interest in pond poisoning to a few people. I still have to laugh every time I think about it. Did my uncle truly think I meant to poison someone's pond? Good grief.

That isn't the only backlash I've experienced from asking weird (to normal folks) questions. Once, I had a lawyer follow me from his office nearly to my car because I'd given him a hypothetical situation and asked about having someone who owned a great deal of property and cash assets declared legally dead. I'm sure he was convinced I was the heir who needed to have this done to my long, lost mother. I tried to explain that it was just for a story I was writing, but he wasn't convinced. The last thing he said as I was getting into my car was, "If you decide to pursue this, I hope you'll come and see me. It sounds like an interesting case." Sheesh. After that, I learned not to toss out questions to just anyone who I thought might know the answer.

As usual, I got off track and on a tangent with my little stories. So, which references do you use most often? Have you ever gotten into a strange situation from asking questions only writers ask? If so, what happened?

Devon

4 comments:

  1. So funny, Devon, that these guys thought you had something up your sleeve besides honest research. This would be a good set-up for a novel!

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  2. Mags, I could definitely see something like the lawyer thing leading to a Stephanie Plum type plot.

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  3. Love the blog Devon. You always have something interesting to talk about.
    I remember being at a restaurant with a group of writers talking about killing people, then the discussion moved to autopsies and things like that. After a few moments we looked around to discover everyone who had been seated close to us had moved and were giving us really strange looks.
    I've often wondered if the FBI monitor our writer's groups like KOD or the crimescene loop I'm on, since we discuss making bombs or how to do someone in without leaving a trace.
    I'm just paranoid, I guess.
    Write on,
    Teresa R.

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  4. Glad you like the blog, Teresa. I discard more entries than I post because they tend to be rambles that no would could possibly find interesting. I love the restaurant story! And I can recall being in on a few of those kinds of discussions at restaurants when topics got out of hand or were too much to subject the diners around us to and we had to tone it down. I don't know about the FBI, but I seem to recall a few years ago some writers who got on a watch list because they were doing internet research on terrorist groups and the like.

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